Elina’s: First Look at Chicago’s Italian Restaurant in River West


Photo courtesy of Elina

Chicagoans have always loved Italian-American restaurants – we have several neighborhoods jam-packed with them – so no matter where you are, a platter of fried calamari or an order of Chicken Parm is always within reach. And lately, a whole new generation of super chic Italian spots have opened around the city, including Alla Vita from the Boka group led by Michelin-starred chef Lee Wolen, Apolonia from the South Loop with SKY chef Stephen Gillanders, and Adalina in the Gold Coast, led by Soo Ahn of the late Band of Bohemia. Their menus, garnished with garlic Caesars, sticky arancini, elegant plates of crudo and numerous pastas, often rolled, stuffed or extruded on site, plunge into the holy trinity of centuries-old tradition, fresh ingredients from the farm and succulent carbohydrates. (Pro tip: Don’t skip pastry chef Kim Mok’s fantastic desserts at Alla Vita, especially the Nutella Sundae which is worth checking out.)

The most recent, and perhaps the most low-key of this recent uprising in the red sauce is 48-seat Elina’s in River West, which quietly popped up in mid-September as chefs and co-owners Ian Rusnak, 32, and Eric Safin, 29, lit the majestic stoves. Named after Safin’s mother – she cried when he told her – the intimate BYOB neighborhood so far serves laid-back comfort in an old-fashioned setting.

Elina’s interior | Photo courtesy of Elina

Rusnak (who is from Elmhurst) and Safin (from outside of Philadelphia) met while cooking under the direction of Marc Forgione in New York City. Safin, who has worked in kitchens since hiring a dishwasher at age 15, credits each restaurant on his extensive resume for teaching him different skills, from the fundamentals of cooking to the minute in the restaurant. Marc Forgione, to the discipline and organization of the restaurant. Jean Georges. Rusnak, who helped open the old Pump Room in Chicago before moving to New York and running the kitchen for the famous red sauce store Carbone, among other notable outposts, was Culinary Director of Hogsalt when 4 Charles Prime Rib and Bavette’s Steakhouse and Bar have been expanded. At New York.

The two joined forces when the pandemic began, creating a restaurant business and cleverly creating three restaurant-style pop-up concepts for their customers to choose from to dine at home, including an Italian-American themed experience. they nicknamed Paisan’s. They crisscrossed the country in a Honda CRV, plotting a route from the Hamptons to the Jersey Shore, Miami, Chicago, Montana, wherever their customers resided, stopping at antique malls to pick up porcelain and vintage cutlery along the way. “We realized that we had to put on a show,” says Safin. “And Lenox makes the food so much better.”

Photo courtesy of Elina

The couple’s globetrotting business allowed them to put together a solid food repertoire and a list of stellar vendors, essentials when settling in Chicago and renting the Grand Avenue storefront. Formerly Gringo’s, Grandview Tap, and the much-loved Cafe Fresco, the space resembles a tavern, reminiscent of facilities like Il Vicinato and Bruna’s in the heart of Chicago’s Little Italy, or a miniature version of Harry Caray’s Italian steakhouse in River North. Elina’s particular stretch of Grand Avenue also retains its history as an Italian enclave – the mainstays of Bari Foods deli and the D’amato bakery (where chefs buy their bread) are just down the block, while La Scarola, Tempesta and several better pizzerias also sit nearby. And from the golden antique world map to the ceiling, to the bushy turquoise cabins, to the starry tile floors, as well as the aroma of fresh garlic and the sounds of Billy Joel playing on the grandson’s stereo. Rusnak’s father, you know it from the second you walk. inside this newcomer that you are going to eat well.

The menu is stacked with amplified versions of “food you might see on the Sopranos,” says Safin. “It’s a Jersey-style Italian with a few frills,” Rusnak adds. A basket of garlic bread and tomato focaccia kicks off, accompanied by a bowl of Agrodolce vinegared eggplant. A vintage plate filled with Clams Casino might come next, followed by a rich Rigatoni alla Vodka extruded at home or a delicately executed Crab Angel Hair. A towering Eggplant Parmesan or thread-to-order Dover Sole Piccata served with Vesuvius potatoes and peas awaits on the wings, “because that’s the best part of Vesuvius chicken,” says Rusnak. The food seems high in technique but steeped in tradition, perfect for a neighborhood joint and indicative of their combined years of dining experience.

Elina’s chopped salad | Photo courtesy of Elina

What are the chefs’ explanation for the recent Chicago tomato and mozzarella attack? “Italian comes in so many different flavors,” says Safin, noting that this “return to red sauce” strikes like comfort food for their lucky diners and that Italian cuisine “is also timeless.” Rusnak agrees: “Right now we really love to cook. “

In the spring, the duo will unveil a large back patio as well as a full bar and wine list, both of which promise to breathe seasonal life into the project. “There, we want to channel the Amalfi Coast,” says Rusnak. For now, however, the cozy and inviting dining room, bursting with warmth, familiarity, and impeccable cuisine, is exactly what the city’s still recovering restaurant scene needs to get out of it. a difficult year and a change of state. Bon appétit, Chicago.

Elina’s is open Tuesday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations can be made via Resy.

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Lisa Futterman is a contributor to Thrillist.

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